How 3 Salt Lake City Council members say they can, and can’t, address homelessness

Ana Valdemoros, Alejandro Puy and Chris Wharton discussed solutions underway and the limits of their power as elected officials.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alejandro Puy, representing District 2 on the Salt Lake City Council, at his inauguration on January 3, 2022. He emphasized to constituents at a recent public update that city officials simply cannot address homelessness without wide support across county and state governments.

Much of what the public hears about efforts to address homelessness in Salt Lake City comes from the executive level — from the office of Mayor Erin Mendenhall or state homeless coordinator Wayne Niederhauser. But on Tuesday evening City Council members Alejandro Puy, Chris Wharton and Ana Valdemoros sat down in Gallivan Hall to talk with downtown residents about the steps they’ve taken, as essentially the legislative branch, for the city to address homelessness.

“I know how frustrating the problem is and how it seems like things are moving really slowly,” Wharton said. But he noted that since joining the city council in 2017, more has been done to help unsheltered residents — from new resource centers to growing “alternative response” teams.

But the council members were frank about the limits to their power, and echoed Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s calls for county and state action on the issue.

“I cannot tell you enough how much we need the help from everybody else,” Puy said, “because Salt Lake City cannot do this alone.”

Addressing the needs of the city’s unsheltered residents is top of mind for many city officials. On Wednesday night, The Salt Lake Tribune, PBS Utah and KUER will host a mayoral debate, where affordable housing and homelessness will be key subjects.

In council races, incumbent Valdemoros faces two challengers on Nov. 21 for her District 4 seat -- Eva Lopez Chavez and Clayton Scrivner. Puy is running unopposed for his District 2 position and Wharton, representing District 3, is not up for election this year.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ana Valdemoros delivers her opening remarks in Spanish after being sworn in as District 4 Councilwoman at Salt Lake City Hall on Monday, Jan. 6, 2020.

Short term shelter solutions

The council pointed to the tiny home village and the planned ‘sanctioned camp’ as two new projects that will help people get off the street and connect to services. Neither of the projects have opened yet, but Puy said he hoped the tiny home village would open in the spring and the sanctioned camp is slated to open this November.

Wharton noted that it can be difficult to find city-owned parcels for projects like these, because the land that comes into their possession either requires remediation because it’s served as a landfill or is contaminated.

Providing enough shelter beds, especially in the colder winter months, is a problem. Last winter, five people died on the streets.

Puy noted that on Tuesday night, both Gail Miller and Geraldine E. King Resource Centers were 100% full and the men’s resource center was at 98% capacity. In addition to the sanctioned camp, the county will have 600 additional overflow beds for single adults and 100 extra beds for families this winter.

Council member Puy said that Operation Rio Grande was “a failure in many many ways. It shifted this problem to other neighborhoods.”

Now, “we are seeing a lot of the unsheltered community, unsheltered neighbors living by the river, and being ping ponged from one corner to another,” Puy said.

Wharton said that the city “strenuously opposed” the demolition of the old Road Home shelter, which the state purchased for $4 million.

“We said ‘we’re short about 400 beds, the math doesn’t work’ and the decision was made over the city’s objection to close the Road Home and demolish it anyway,” Wharton said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The former Demolition Road Home shelter in Salt Lake City, shown here as demolition began on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020.

Unsheltered residents aren’t allowed to camp on city streets and are forced to move their belongings during abatements. However, Wharton said that the city can’t enforce the no-camping ordinance on nights when there aren’t enough shelter beds to offer.

Public safety

Council members noted they now have five different entities working with unsheltered communities. The fire department’s community health access team recently expanded, there’s a police social worker program and there are more downtown ambassadors.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake Fire Department CHAT members Sarah Bohe and Shannon Luckart assist the unsheltered during an abatement, on Thursday, July 27, 2023.

Council members cautioned against using jail as a means of getting people off the street.

“We can’t force them to go somewhere else unless that place is jail,” Wharton said. “We don’t control the jail.”

“Even if we took all of those people down to the jail, and they were all released, they would be back at the campsite before the cops were done filling out the paperwork for what just happened. That is not the best use of your taxpayer money,” Wharton said.

Plus, spending time in jail only makes getting into permanent housing more difficult for those living on the street. “Those add up and make it harder for them to get into permanent housing, especially to housing that’s very competitive,” Wharton said.

“It’s not that we just have abandoned the no camping ordinance, it’s that we have to make decisions about the best use of taxpayer money in any given situation and frequently the best use is not to go and arrest these individuals,” Wharton said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune). The health department cuts down tents and shelters on Rio Grande Street, as they swept through the area loading everything into dump trucks on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020.

Nevertheless the council members also stressed the need for police officers, noting that a new police substation opened in the Ballpark and North Temple neighborhoods. Plus, the resource centers now have assigned police officers funded by the state.

Affordable housing construction

The city has spent more than $20 million on affordable housing, Valdemoros said.

“When a developer comes to us or a nonprofit or other homeless services groups that are trying to do housing, we have that tool,” Valdemoros said.

“We can’t tell a private developer or private landowner, ‘you must build affordable housing’,” Wharton said. The city only gets the chance to weigh in if a developer asks it for a zoning change or financing assistance.

Many of the buildings going up around town are market rate and developers haven’t had to ask the city for assistance, Wharton said.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) The County High Rise apartment tower in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, July 5, 2022. City and county officials will begin renovating the much-needed and deeply affordable apartments for seniors.

“We also, under state law, are not allowed to do rent control,” Wharton said. The city also likely can’t pass inclusionary zoning laws, he said.

“We’re very, very limited to incentive based programs, or programs where the city owns the land,” he said.

Despite these limits, the city is considering several new affordable housing incentives as part of its Thriving in Place plan. That will be discussed at greater length during a council public hearing this evening.